THE purpose of a party platform is pandering, but it is pandering of a particular sort. The Democratic Party's platform committee has produced its 2008 edition, and now this draft awaits approval at the Democratic National Convention later this month. Like all platforms, it is not an outreach document. It is aimed at the faithful, under the assumption that only they will read it.
The platform is Democrats' assurance that the party still loves them, their reward for supporting a candidate who may not have been their first choice and their consolation for betrayals yet to come. Much of it is written in code, lest it fall into the wrong hands.
Translating the document is no simple task. First, an alarmist note. Democrats favor "tough, practical and humane immigration reform." And, "We will provide immediate relief to working people who have lost their jobs, families who have lost their homes and people who have lost their way." It's not clear what that third item refers to. Tax credits for G.P.S. devices? Presumably, "people who have lost their way" doesn't mean illegal immigrants trying to find the border.
As a general rule, platforms of both parties avoid the word "people" in favor of "the American people" or "families" or "American families." And platforms traditionally follow the rhetorical rule that there are three of everything. This year, though (in a development that will, I fear, reinforce prejudices about liberal profligacy), the Democrats have replaced the Rule of Threes with a Rule of Fours: "policies that are smart and right and fair and good for America," or "a government as decent, candid, purposeful and compassionate as the American people themselves." Or sometimes even Fives or Sixes (I'll spare you).
Sometimes there are only two. Usually this means that some difficult trade-off has been resolved by the simple expedient of promising both alternatives. "We will ensure that our patent laws protect legitimate rights while not stifling innovation and creativity" an excellent summary of the dilemma of patents since this nation's founding. Or how about a promise of more research money for "common and rare diseases"? That about covers it.
Then there are the mystery phrases that suggest a triumph for one side in some obscure policy battle. In the midst of a frenzy of health care promises basically, after the plan is fully implemented in 2050, no one will be permitted to get sick the Democrats advocate "creating a generic pathway for biologic drugs." Whether this is a triumph for health and common sense or the miserable handiwork of a drug industry lobbyist (or both!), I have no idea.
And speaking of health care, ordinarily it is not possible to overuse the word "American" or to overpraise this great country and its magnificent people. But the Democrats may have found a way in promising a health care system that is "uniquely American." A uniquely American health care system is what we've got.
Capital Letters can be important clues, suggesting hidden motives and broken promises. "Our Children's First Agenda" sounds more like a toy for future bureaucrats than a government policy. And a "Presidential Early Learning Council" sounds like what these kids will do when they grow up. "We ... will help Limited English Proficient students get ahead by supporting and funding English Language Learner classes." This obviously has something to do with bilingual education (or "transitional bilingual education," as the platform carefully calls it).
A promise to create a "Military Families Advisory Board" sounds as though the military families sold out cheap. On the other hand, a promise to "create an Advanced Manufacturing Fund" and to "expand the Manufacturing Extension Partnerships" sounds expensive and stupid. But that's just a guess. I could be wrong.
The platform's most bizarre promise is a tax break for fathers "who are responsibly supporting their children." The best-hidden boondoggle is dropped into the second half of a sentence in a general passage about women. "We will invest in women-owned small businesses and remove the capital gains tax on start-up small businesses." (Attention all conservatives: Do not panic! This passage does not mean that Democrats favor government investments in businesses, even small businesses, even small businesses owned by women. That would be socialism. It is a convention of platform-writing that all government spending is referred to as "investment." The Republicans do it, too. That doesn't make it right.)
The most shameless promise is one to "eliminate all income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 per year." These seniors "should not have to worry about tax burdens," the document says. Who should? Working people making less than $50,000?
"Some of" the cost of catastrophic illness will be taken off the backs of "employers and employees." And borne by? Who's left? I guess the unemployed.
As the end approaches, the issues start to blur. Is there really no "White House advisor on Indian Affairs" already? The "self-determination and sovereignty of Native Hawaiians?" Fine with me. The last paragraph is entitled, "Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands." Translation: "Let's wrap this up and go have a drink."